Nerva was an elderly senator when, after the death of emperor Domitian in 96 A.D, the senate asked him to be emperor. Although popular with the senate and the people of Rome, he was not appreciated by the Army. To placate them he raised the great general Trajan to the rank of Caesar in late October 97 A.D. He died on 25 January 98 A.D.
Communication had always been a critical element in the maintenance and growth of empires, and all ancient civilizations struggled with its associated problems. Romans were famous as innovators in communication and transportation, and much of their success was predicated on their ingenuity in these regards. Augustus founded the imperial postal system as an eventual replacement for the traditional system of tabellarii, or private messengers. This was a bold manoeuvre, as the public postal system was meant to service the whole empire. However, the bulk of the traffic involved governmental communications, and Augustus did not provide for its full maintenance in the Imperial budget. With the passage of time these matters were not corrected, and were generally made worse.
A regular part of this system was the local requisitioning of vehicles, animals and provisions from the private sector. These frequent impositions were resented by those afflicted, as they obstructed citizens from attending to their own tasks, and in the end those citizens likely were not compensated or were under-compensated for the actual cost of the impositions. The system was administered, variously, by government officials, imperial contractors and local magistrates; abuses were commonplace. Apparently Domitian was especially abusive in this regard, so Nerva freed the people from this burden by assuring that the cost of the government’s communication network was assumed by the government. Nerva celebrates his popular reform on this sestertius, which is inscribed VEHICVLATIONE ITALIAE REMISSA. Later in the empire this system, the cursus publicus, became one of the largest governmental institutions of antiquity.
On this spectacular sestertius we see the mules and their accoutrements in rare detail. Most interesting, perhaps, is the high-wheeled cart behind the mules with its pole-and-harnesses trapping resting upright. The scene is placid, with the horses grazing and the vehicle out of commission. The decision to depict a rather idyllic scene, as opposed to showing a mule-cart on the move, is a perfect reflection of the inscription, which itself refers to the remission of the burden. (NAC 46, 551 note).
Laureate head right
IMP NERVA CAES AVG PM TR P COS III PP
Two mules grazing, one left, one right; behind, high-wheeled cart, with pole and harness, tipped up and pointing slightly to right
VEHICVLATIONE ITALIAE REMISSA SC
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